A tale of hope

Gisela Rossi from the WISE Young Professionals’ Board discusses her volunteer role as a coding mentor to children and interviews Isabella, one of the girls she mentors.

In 2016 I started to volunteer as a coding mentor at CoderDojo Ham. CoderDojo is a global volunteer-led organization. In their own words:

“The CoderDojo movement believes that an understanding of programming languages is increasingly important in the modern world, that it’s both better and easier to learn these skills early, and that nobody should be denied the opportunity to do so.”

And CoderDojo is not alone in this goal. There are dozens of free, volunteer-led, community-based initiatives that aim to familiarize kids and teenagers with technology and maybe spark some enthusiasm for learning more about STEM fields.

When I started to volunteer at CoderDojo I was immediately struck by how few girls were there. In my working group, only 2 out of 25 kids were girls. At the time, there were no enterprises in place to understand the root causes of this disparity or plans towards a solution.

In time CoderDojo recognized the issue and launched a Girls Initiative aimed at increasing the number of girls that attend dojos to at least 40% by 2020. The initiative contains a series of advice collected from volunteers on the frontlines that have been trying to tackle this issue. If you run a similar event or activity I think it’s worth a read.

But today I don’t want to focus on how “we’re not there yet”. I want to focus today on a success story. Certain sociological changes, like changing discrimination and inequality in STEM fields, come at a slow pace. And while it’s vital that we keep doing good consistent work over a long period of time, volunteers can wear down by attrition. That is why it’s fundamental that we talk about hope and success stories.

This is what I bring to you today. An interview with a brilliant, motivated, and stereotype-challenging girl I met at the dojo. Being her mentor helped me get out of the sofa and head to the dojo on days when morale was low.

I hope this interview will shed light upon the importance of parents’ involvement in challenging these stereotypes, the role mentors can play by volunteering their time, and the incalculable impact of allowing kids to explore.

Interview with Isabella Greathead

Do you remember the first day you wrote code? Can you tell me what you remember about it? Things like where you were, who was with you, how did you feel, etc.

It was Valentine’s Day and I was trying a new school and they had some programming classes. I think it was HTML but I am not sure. We then played this game where we “programmed” the adults to move around which was fun. My dad suggested I try the Hour of Code and I really enjoyed that so my mum convinced me to try CoderDojo. I was eight years old when I first went. My dad was there with me. At the time, CoderDojo was in a youth hall. There was a small room for Scratch beginners, and a large hall for everything else. I was in the small room. My first code was where a pac man chased ghosts around and ate them, and would get a point each. The CoderDojo mentor I met was super helpful and spent time with me. I finished the first coding exercise and I did another code that day, and I couldn’t finish so my dad took the exercise home so I could carry on. I was hooked. I phoned my uncle in America who worked at Google at the time and shared what I did – he was so encouraging. I also found out that my cousin was also doing Scratch and we talked about Scratch together.


Isabella programming at coderdojo.

What do you enjoy about writing code?

  1. I enjoy the challenge. Programming is the ultimate problem solving game. I have an idea and have to figure out how to do it. It is brilliant when you get to the end.
  2. I like designing my own games, I don’t like many computer games. But in coding I can make games I like, about what I want, with the right difficulty for me. I also like sharing these games with my friends and my brother. My one friend had a pretend game she invented so I programmed it in Scratch so she could actually play it in real life.
  3. I realise this is a weird reason, but I really like doing something my parents don’t understand. I feel smart telling them about what I programmed, and them not understanding. Dad understands the language but doesn’t know to programme, he keeps saying that I make his brain hurt.

What did you enjoy about the dojo in particular?
The main thing was ideas, I never really knew what to code, or what was possible. CoderDojo really helped with that. I also found it encouraging seeing other kids my age that programmed. The mentors were amazing especially when I was stuck on a problem. They would often let me skip the activity to help me finish it. There were a few that were particularly encouraging and made me feel that I could do anything. It was sometimes hard being a girl as most of the older kids were embarrassed that I knew more than them, especially the boys!

Did you feel particularly encouraged by someone to keep doing it?
Yes. So many people were incredibly encouraging. My Mum and Dad are amazing. We have a family friend called Richard that will come round for supper, during supper he will talk to Mum and Dad, but afterwards he will help me program. Often he would spend more time talking to me than my parents. We have made some really cool things on Python.

Gisela, one of the mentors at CoderDojo has really encouraged me. She was always really patient and helped me see that this could be more than something fun to do and maybe a job in coding was possible. She is the person that invited me to do this interview, she also used to work at Facebook and showed me the London office once. It was amazing!

And lastly there is a lady that goes to our church and for christmas she got me a python course. I had found it hard to find a place to learn that wasn’t talking down to me or using language that aimed at adults. By getting me that course, she really inspired me to keep going and helped me explore new areas of Python I did not know.

I was encouraged by my parents to enter Coolest Projects when I was 9 which was an amazing opportunity to share my code for playing Pong with a self ordering leaderboard in Scratch. I had a wonderful time coding and going to the day. The best part was a girl won the section for Scratch.


Isabella at coolest projects.

Did you feel particularly discouraged by someone to keep doing it?

No, not really. There was this one time where I went to this fair we had near our old house. There was a stand about 3D printing. They were telling me about Scratch and I said I already did it. Then a random man said that he did not know girls programmed. That really made me cross. It would be nice if there were more girl mentors and girls at CoderDojo. Other than that, not really.

Did you share this activity with friends? Can you tell me more about how that was.

I shared it with as many people as I could. I actually met one of my best friends at CoderDojo. One of my friends ended up coming to CoderDojo, we are now working on an invention to enter in a programming contest. It has been fun to share my coding adventure with some of my friends and also my parents’ friends and my grandparents.

Looking back at your own experience, if you had to give advice to a girl that would like to learn to code what would it be?

This is not specifically towards girls, but I have two bits of advice.

  1. If you are stuck on a problem (and I promise you, you will have tons, that is programming.) Stop, ask yourself a question like ”Why is this problem happening”, then take a break, do something entirely unrelated. Your brain works on problems while you are not thinking about them, so the answer will often come to you. I actually once dreamed up the answer to a programming problem.
  2. If this does not work, ask someone for help. Or even better have a specific person who you can ask for help if you are struggling. It could be a family friend, one of your friends that codes, or your a parent. It may even be a CoderDojo mentor. This is what is so amazing about CoderDojo, there are people that program, and it really helps, when you just can’t find what’s wrong.

A closing note

I hope I live to see the inequalities in STEM become a thing of the past. I hope what we’re doing makes a difference. Stop for a minute and picture it: a world of grown-up women that from a young age defied stereotypes and armed themselves with confidence and knowledge. If the future is full of Isabellas I’ll be jolly glad to be part of it. At the end of the day, this entry is a tale of hope.

Become a My Skills My Life role model. We would like to create the largest database of STEM role models in the UK, to allow girls to see the vast opportunities available in STEM. We want a range of role models to reflect all sectors and backgrounds to inspire girls to consider a career in STEM.

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